03/11/2014 12:59 EDT | Updated 05/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Nunavut prison report censored for no reason, watchdog says

Nunavut's information watchdog says she's found no reason why the territory's justice department refuses to release a report about conditions at the Baffin Correctional Centre.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts has recommended the minister disclose the document to CBC News with no deletions or redactions. The department had refused to release most of the 33-page report, citing security and solicitor-client privilege.

Last summer, CBC requested a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the Nunavut government and the Office of Canada's Correctional Investigator to review the centre's "infrastructure and functionality through a human rights lens." The aging facility has long had a bad reputation for safety.

The Justice Department refused to release the documents and suggested CBC make a second request under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Report heavily redacted

The department released the MOU but as for the 33-page report, it only supplied a cover page, two exterior photos of the facility and six pages where information was blacked out. The rest was missing.

Among the reasons given to deny access, Deputy Minister of Justice Norman Tarnow said the information was protected by solicitor-client privilege and could facilitate inmate escapes.

CBC asked the territory's Information and Privacy Commissioner to investigate.

In her report, Keenan Bengts said she found nothing "within the document itself from which I can conclude that any of the stated exemptions apply."  Specifically, the commissioner says the department did not provide her office with any explanation as to how the document might help someone escape.

"I am at a loss to understand how pictures of a washroom facility within the building, with no windows, might prejudice the security of the facility or facilitate an escape," said Keenan Bengts. She added that the difficult conditions inside the facility would not surprise "anyone who has paid any attention to the news in Iqaluit or in Nunavut over the last four years or more, or to anyone unfortunate enough to have found themselves incarcerated in the facility."

Commissioner rejects excuses

As for the excuse the document is protected from disclosure by reason of solicitor-client privilege, Keenan Bengts said that just because the report's authors are lawyers doesn't mean there is or was ever any solicitor-client relationship between the department and the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

"The role of an ombudsman is independent oversight. As such there can be no solicitor-client relationship between the Government of Nunavut and the ombudsman," Keenan Bengts wrote.

Despite her findings, the justice department may still choose not to release the report. When the commissioner first corresponded with CBC, Keenan Bengts noted her office has no power or jurisdiction to order the department to disclose information or undertake any specific action. The territorial government now has 30 days to decide whether to release the report.